Hockey Night in the Data Center

Harwell Thrasher, author of “Boiling the IT Frog: How to make your business information technology wildly successful without having to learn anything technical,” has a blog post out talking about how, during the current economic situation, which has gone beyond “depression” and towards “the pit of despair,” companies are making dangerous cuts to IT staff.

He compares it to an ice hockey tactic called “pulling the goalie,” in which a team is down by a goal in an important game, and they will swap out the goalie for a sixth offensive player in a desperate effort to score.  Doing so is within the rules but leaves the goal undefended.  For example, an IT department that cancels offsite backup recovery solutions, stopped updating virus prevention software, and laid off the only guy in the company who really understands how to maintain and support custom systems all lead to the possibility of a grave disaster that threatens to seriously harm the company.

But the metaphor is flawed.  Pulling the goalie in hockey may reduce defenses but it gives hockey teams a better shot of playing on the offense.  A lot of IT cuts seem to be not pulling the goalie – most companies at least know to keep their anti-virus software up to date – but they might not take network performance as seriously as they once did, and make reductions in IT without realizing that it can be a false savings.

That is, it is difficult – but not impossible – to determine the costs of letting a particular application, like, say PeopleSoft, experience a “brownout” – still technically “up,” but performing poorly.  Losing money in lost productivity or sales or customer satisfaction.  At that point, it’s a simple equation: did the money saved from the IT cost cover the productivity, lost revenue, or irritated customer? If the answer is “no,” then it’s clearly a case of false economy.

This is especially important considering that companies are starting to reconsider the “do more with less” mentality and are now thinking about “doing less with less.”  And indeed, this can be a viable tactic – if you can save money by going for three nines of uptime instead of five nines of uptime, it can be worth it if you only need three nines of uptime.

Network performance requirements can be cut in the same way, sort of.  I mean, while it actually hurts me, emotionally, to suggest this, “the best” network performance isn’t always the most cost effective network performance.  So, for example, if you can save money by allowing some periods of congestion on the WAN, so long as that congestion never gets over an acceptable amount, then it might work.

The problem is finding out what’s “acceptable.”  This means baselining performance and understanding what kind of performance your business applications need.  It’s for this reason that cuts in IT should not include the network engineers that make those determinations, nor the (self-interest alert!) network monitoring solutions they depend on.  IT without the former is “pulling the goalie,” while IT without the latter is putting the goalie out there without a stick, protective gear, or skates.

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